In 2014’s Chef, the closest thing to an autobiographical movie Jon Favreau has made since he wrote and starred in Swingers 18 years before, Favreau plays Carl, a once cutting-edge chef de cuisine whom success has made complacent and dull. Consumed by his work, at the cost of his marriage and his relationship with his son, Carl nonetheless plays it safe, serving up the same caviar egg and chocolate lava cake his moneyed customers have come to expect. (When he gets ideas about ditching his signature dishes and switching up the menu, the restaurant’s owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, asks, “If you bought Stones tickets and Jagger didn’t play ‘Satisfaction,’ how would you feel?”) After a dust-up with a food critic, who rightly but indelicately calls him on his lack of culinary imagination, Carl goes back to basics, serving Cubanos out of a truck as he drives from Miami back to Los Angeles.
When artists incorporate critics into their work, it’s almost always as a spiteful caricature: Think of the venomous, grudge-carrying theater critic in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. But even though Chef’s food critic makes inappropriate cracks about his target’s weight and doesn’t seem to know how lava cake gets its molten center, his diagnosis is on the money, and Carl ultimately benefits from it. On his career’s new direction, Carl says, “I get to touch people’s lives with what I do, and it keeps me going and I love it.”
That’s not so different from how Favreau, the director of Elf and Iron Man as well as this week’s The Jungle Book, views his own career. “Some filmmakers are artists, they’re auteurs,” he told the L.A. Times in 2011, but his responsibility is to the viewer. “If I’m putting something out there and the audience isn’t getting it, I’m not doing my job.”
Disney’s Jungle Book remake is a tricky balancing act, but Favreau is Hollywood’s most adept crowd-pleaser. As his character in Chef learns, a well-crafted grilled cheese can be as satisfying as haute cuisine, and Favreau is expert at giving familiar favorites just enough freshness to let us taste them anew. Iron Man infused superhero movies with screwball banter and slapstick comedy while still delivering the iconic imagery that makes a 12-year-old’s heart sing. Elf deftly blended knowing skepticism and Christmas cheer: You laugh when Will Ferrell’s Buddy takes a “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” sign at face value, but you can’t help but envy his guileless enthusiasm.
The Jungle Book trades the brightly colored animation of the 1967 original for the hyper-real clarity of computer-generated 3-D, while still holding onto its tidy moral and crowd-pleasing song-and-dance numbers. As lively as Bill Murray and Christopher Walken’s vocal performances are, the new versions of “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” don’t really fit the comparatively realistic world Favreau and his hundreds of animators have created; the fiery climax may be the most terrifying sequence in children’s movies since Woody and Buzz faced the incinerator in Toy Story 3. But Favreau knows that The Jungle Book’s audience is expecting, well, The Jungle Book, and he’s not about to strike the original’s best-remembered highlights from the set list.
Although Favreau’s movies have received ample recognition, both from critics and at the box office, there have been few attempts to address them as a body of work. Favreau is the ghost in the highly successful machine. Directing movies, Favreau told the L.A. Times, is “not something I would do if nobody was watching them, like Van Gogh painting for himself,” which may be why it’s so difficult to sniff out recurring themes in his work, the telltale scent that differentiates the auteur from the craftsman. As muddled and sometimes infuriating as it can be, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman feels personal in a way Favreau’s Iron Man movies do not—vapid, tedious, and overblown, but fully committed to Snyder’s own ludicrous vision.
But what is Favreau’s vision? Favreau has his pet themes, namely a concern with fractured families and father-son estrangement—Jungle Book’s Mowgli suffers the death of both real and surrogate fathers—and a concomitant habit of giving his female characters seriously short shrift. But he’s less a creator than an arranger, with a touch so light it’s easy to overlook altogether. In recent years, Favreau has tried his hand at DJing, and his best movies play like well-curated playlists, slipping seamlessly from greatest hits to deep cuts and back again; even his preoccupation with divorce is like Spielberg remixed.
What keeps them from feeling like mere retreads is the latitude he extends to his actors. Favreau was far from Marvel’s first choice for Iron Man, but we have him to thank for Robert Downey Jr.’s wry turn as a callous industrialist turned cocky crime-fighter, which—simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-mocking—turned out to be the foundation of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s odd to remember that back in 2007 Downey was still considered a risky proposition. He’s in the movie because Favreau fought for him to be cast. He’s loose and great in large part because Favreau carved out costly time in the shooting schedule to let him improvise on set. Downey’s live-wire performance was pointedly at odds with the iconography-encrusted approach of contemporary comic-book heroes—compare Downey’s breeziness with the stentorian plodding of Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, released the same year—and it added a welcome dose of unpredictability to a movie whose story was otherwise strictly by-the-numbers. (In the last scene, Tony Stark takes the podium at a press conference and promptly asks the assembled journalists to sit on the floor like an obedient kindergarten class; it was Downey’s idea, and Favreau ran with it.) Will Ferrell had been making movies for years, but it was Elf that made him a movie star, channeling his explosive improvisational talents in service of a winsome character portrait. Even in The Jungle Book, which features only one human lead actor amid a sea of CGI, there are moments where Bill Murray, as the voice of the gregarious bear Baloo, is clearly way off script.
Like a chef, Favreau is, to an extent, at the mercy of his ingredients: Some auteurs are at their best when trying to transcend a subpar script, but, Iron Man’s inspired improvs aside, Favreau doesn’t elevate material; he realizes it. His instincts are fundamentally collaborative, caring for the whole even at the expense of leaving his own mark. In his lengthy interview with Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick from 2014, he talks at length about his background in stand-up and improvisational comedy. There’s nothing like the high of a killer stand-up set, he says, but when an improv group nails a sketch, it’s “like being in the Marines.” Balancing the needs of the individual and the group is what makes Favreau such a successful caretaker of franchises; he’s sensitive to all members of the team, even the moneymen whom “artists” can view as the enemy. If he were an Avenger, Favreau wouldn’t be loose cannon Tony Stark, going it alone on mission after mission. He’d be Captain America, the straight-shooting team leader.
The auteurist approach to film is geared toward recognizing the genius of individuals. But Favreau’s career reminds us that terrific movies are made by directors who believe, to quote The Jungle Book, that “the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” We need a theory for them, too.